Dr Cecil Cook was Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory from 1927 to 1939. Like Neville, he was an authoritarian official who never questioned his right to act without consulting his charges. At the 1937 conference, he said his main concern was a potential demographic explosion among the half-castes. At the time, the Territory had 4000 whites and 900 half-castes. Cook was anything but a far-sighted administrator. During his time in the Territory he remained dubious about its prospects for development of any kind. He was especially pessimistic about the ability of the local economy ever to sustain a large population. Even the planned establishment of a naval base and airport at Darwin, he thought, would not lift the total number of white inhabitants of the Territory beyond 10,000 to 12,000 in the next half-century.
The only population group he thought would grow substantially was that of half-castes. He presented figures to the 1937 Canberra conference showing that the birth-rate among Territory whites was 0.3 per thousand (much less than the replacement rate), but among half-castes was 18 per 1000 (well above the replacement rate). However, his prediction of what this meant was full of gloom. In 50 years time, he said, the Territory would suffer an employment crisis, with not enough jobs to go around. Most of the half-castes would be unable to find work. The lack of jobs would then produce a political crisis. If they were not educated but ‘maintained at an inferior status’, the unemployed half-castes ‘will probably rise in revolt’, or at least pose a serious racial problem. He was especially concerned to avoid a situation like that in the United States where the blacks formed a depressed underclass and were the objects of white violence.
Cook’s vision of the Territory’s demographic and employment future turned out to be hopelessly astray. From about 4800 whites and 15,400 Aborigines in the mid-1930s, over the following 50 years the population grew to more than 123,000. Nonetheless, in the 1930s when the experience of the Great Depression permeated the economic outlook of most Australians, Cook was not out of step with his time. He viewed the prospects of those he had to ‘protect’ with unease. He was especially concerned about the influence of the Communist Party among Aboriginal labourers in Darwin, who he thought were ‘perennially destitute, a prey to agitators’. Cook’s alternative to all this was assimilation:
If, on the other hand, the half-caste is raised to the level of the whites, he will be able to migrate to other parts of Australia, and compete there with white men on an equal footing should employment not be available for him in the territory. That would relieve the tension in the territory. After consideration of these alternatives, the Commonwealth decided to raise the half-caste to the level of the whites. The children are to be educated as whites and apprenticed in industry as whites, and will compete in the labour market as whites. So far, the Commonwealth has seen no reason to regret the policy it has adopted, although it has been in operation for only seven or eight years.
He was serious about the education potential of half-caste children. He disagreed with the New South Wales’ education department, which thought half-castes incapable of education beyond Third Grade, and agued they should receive a full primary school education to Sixth Grade, like most white children. He successfully lobbied to change Territory policy to that end, especially at the Bungalow, the home for half-caste children at Alice Springs. One of his recent critics commends him for his success here:
It seems no coincidence that within two years of Cook’s departure from the Territory, [Bungalow] inmates began winning highly competitive scholarships to secondary school in open competition with non-Aboriginal children. In fact, by the time Cook left the Territory, a foundation had been laid for real subsequent improvements in northern attitudes towards, and employment prospects of, Half-caste people.
Even Henry Reynolds had a positive word to say about Cook’s views on intermarriage. In his book about half-castes, Nowhere People (2005), Reynolds wrote:
Central to Cook’s thinking was a view of miscegenation that at the time was quite progressive. When many in the community were still convinced that half-castes were degenerate and that they inherited the worst qualities of both parental races, he argued that race mixing would bring advantages.
Cook’s policies for full-blood Aborigines were also ‘quite progressive’ for the times. Again, he might be justly accused of authoritarianism and of deciding what was best for people without consulting them. He was also one of those who thought that, if they were not given protection, the full-blood Aborigines living tribal lives in northern Australia would eventually die out from disease and starvation and because the women would all eventually be rendered infertile by the advance of gonorrhoea. But he took a different view about those full-bloods who came under the protection of the government on reserves and in white settlements. He thought many could eventually be educated to the same standards as whites and could be trained for employment in the modern economy, but he also wanted to preserve on ‘inviolable reserves’ those who preferred to live in traditional society. Mindful of the sensitivities of the northern trade union movement and its policy of job preference for white labourers, Cook wanted vocational training to prepare full-blood Aborigines for what he called ‘lucrative occupations’ that did not compete with whites.
In essence, Cook wanted to keep all full-blood Aborigines segregated from the white population but to offer those of them who became detribalized the same degree of educational and employment opportunities he sought for half-castes. How this was to actually occur in the kind of segregated economy he envisaged, he never explained in detail. Nonetheless, at the Canberra conference he successfully proposed the following motion:
That this conference affirms the principle that the general policy in respect of full-blood natives should be —
(a) To educate to a white standard, children of the detribalized living near centres of white population, and subsequently to place them in employment in lucrative occupations, which will not bring them into economic or social conflict with the white community;
(b) To keep the semi-civilized under a benevolent supervision in regard to employment, social and medical services in their own tribal areas. Small local reserves selected for tribal suitability should be provided in these tribal areas where unemployable natives may live as nearly as possible a normal tribal life, and unobjectionable tribal ceremonies may continue and to which employees may repair when unemployed. The ultimate destiny of these people should be their elevation to class (a);
(c) To preserve as far as possible the uncivilized native in his normal tribal state by the establishment of inviolable reserves; each State or Territory determining for itself whether mission activities should be conducted on these reserves and the conditions under which they may be permitted.
It is important to emphasize that this was Cook’s vision for the great majority of the Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory. At the time, the full-blood population totalled about 15,000 while there were fewer than 1000 half-castes. The plans he had for breeding out the colour were confined to the latter minority group.
Like Neville, Cook assumed control over the marriage of half-caste girls and sought to induce them to marry white men. He did not push this line at the 1937 Canberra conference but earlier, in 1933, he had outlined a plan to convert otherwise illegitimate sexual relationships between white men and Aboriginal women into reputable arrangements sanctioned by marriage. As I noted above, Cook justified this in the same terms as Neville: ‘Every endeavour is being made to breed out the colour by elevating female half-castes to white standard with a view to their absorption by mating into the white population.’
But also, like Neville, Cook’s ideas did not neatly fit the concept of racism. He too was strongly influenced by Herbert Basedow’s ideas and regarded Aborigines not as members of a different race but as dark-skinned Caucasians. He strongly disagreed with the notion that the progeny of mixed marriages would be inferior. On the contrary, he argued these children would enhance the racial stock of the Territory’s population by reproducing the best qualities of both white and black. He observed that, at present, there was not much difference between the conditions in Aboriginal camps on the fringes of white settlements and those inhabited by many of the Territory’s white labourers and station hands. He wanted the latter to marry and set up respectable households. While his terminology was patronizing and condescending to both Aborigines and poor whites alike, and he had an unfortunate tendency to use concepts derived from the breeding of animals when discussing his proposals for Aboriginal women, his ambitions for them were not racist but egalitarian:
Many such men would be prepared to marry half-caste females and make decent homes. Provided the girl has been reared to a moderately high standard there can be no objection to such a mating resulting as it does in the white man rearing a white family in good circumstances instead of a half-caste family under degrading conditions. Experience shows that the half-caste girl can, if properly brought up, easily be elevated to a standard where the fact of her marriage to a white will not contribute to his deterioration. On the contrary, under conditions in the Territory where such marriages are socially accepted among a certain section of the population, the results are more beneficial than otherwise since the deterioration of the white is thereby arrested and the local population is stabilized by the building of homes. It is not to be supposed that such marriages are likely to produce an inferior generation. On the contrary a large proportion of the half-caste female population is derived from the best white stock in the country whilst the aboriginal inheritance brings to the hybrid definite qualities of value — intelligence, stamina, resource, high resistance to the influences of the tropical environment and the character of pigmentation which even in high dilution will serve to reduce the at present high incidence of Skin Cancer in the blonde European.
Again, like Neville, Cook’s assumption in all this was of half-caste women marrying white men. He never entertained the prospect of half-caste men marrying white women. Hence, for the same reasons as Neville, the notion that he might be able to ‘breed out the colour’ was virtually impossible from the outset. Moreover, Cook found very few half-caste women prepared to accept the partners he found for them. In 1933 he gave the writer Ernestine Hill a less than upbeat account of his track record:
These marriages are taking place at the rate of three or four a year. Some of them have been happy and satisfactory. Some have not.
Cook confessed to the 1937 conference that in the previous seven or eight years he had only been able to arrange for between 40 and 50 coloured girls to marry whites.
As I discuss in detail below, in 1933 Cook’s scheme was put to Federal Cabinet but was not accepted as Commonwealth policy. Indeed, the Lyons government regarded it as a public embarrassment. Shortly after he addressed the Canberra conference, Cook lost what little political support he retained. In a cabinet reshuffle, the portfolio of Minister for the Interior, who controlled the Northern Territory, went to John McEwen. The new minister promptly announced ‘a new deal’ for Aborigines. He disregarded Cook and began taking advice from anthropologist Professor A. P. Elkin who supported more gradual and separate development. By 1939 when Cook was replaced as Chief Protector, he had virtually given up any kind of match-making and was not fussy about who the girls in his care married. In his last full year in office, he gave permission for nine half-caste women to marry — six to Europeans and three to half-caste males. He also allowed one European to marry a full-blood Aboriginal woman. His efforts made virtually no impact on the ethnic mix of the Territory’s population.